University chaplain focused on social justice, connecting with students

Chaplain Elyse Nelson Winger is in her office in the Goddard Chapel. (Sophie Dolan / The Tufts Daily)

The Rev. Elyse Nelson Winger assumed her role as university chaplain on Oct. 1, 2020. She has used her position to connect with various members of the Tufts community while committing to anti-racist action and addressing issues of social justice, according to students on campus.

In addition to her university chaplain role, Nelson Winger also sits on the Institutional Audit Committee for the university’s anti-racism initiative and the Tufts Steering Committee on Student Mental Health.

Despite beginning her time at Tufts under the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nelson Winger emphasized how welcomed she has felt by the Chaplaincy team and students.

“The energy and excitement and openness to new leadership, that is such a gift … I have been learning so much from this team and the student leaders,” Nelson Winger said.

She said that her first few months have been spent getting to know students, learning what they are passionate about and figuring out what programs established prior to her arrival have worked well on campus. Nelson Winger highlighted that social justice is an urgent priority shared by her and many members of the community. 

“One of the things I’ve learned in these past few months is how important social justice issues are to our students in our community … I think making the connection between spirituality and values and the social justice issues is really critical,” Nelson Winger said.

Nelson Winger added that she wants to tie that into her goals for the Chaplaincy.

“[It] is a primary commitment of mine for us at the Chaplaincy … to be participating in these efforts to become an anti-racist institution and to think about the ways in which our varied religious and philosophical and spiritual traditions can contribute to that vision and action,” she said.

Meeting weekly during the semester with the Interfaith Student Council, a student organization with representatives from spiritual, religious and philosophical groups, Nelson Winger has worked alongside student leaders to create a curriculum for two workshops focused on housing justice and community building.

The council and Nelson Winger also spent time in the fall reflecting on the history of civil rights as it relates to interfaith cooperation and what it means as an interfaith community to be committed to anti-racism. 

“I’m really excited about expanding those opportunities for students to learn and grow as advocates for justice,” Nelson Winger said.

Zahra Rizvi is a member of the Interfaith Student Council and a student worker at the Chaplaincy. During the fall semester, Rizvi, a junior, built her relationship with Nelson Winger by working closely with her on the Interfaith Student Council’s strategic planning group and envisioning how the group and the Chaplaincy can better serve the community moving forward.

“I really enjoy working with Elyse, she has lots of ideas and is also really open to students’ opinions on everything,” Rizvi wrote in an email to the Daily.

In addition to meetings with the council, Rizvi said Nelson Winger spent a significant portion of the fall semester getting to know the campus and community through initiatives such as virtual coffee meetings and a poetry reading.

With the chaos and uncertainty of the past year, Rizvi said having a settled chaplain is an opportunity to start looking toward the future of the Chaplaincy. 

“I see the Chaplaincy becoming much more Interfaith focused,” Rizvi said. “I also imagine we will [begin] seeing new roles for students within the Chaplaincy, and more opportunities for students to take initiative in planning and executing programming.”

Walker Bristol, humanist chaplain and assistant director at the Chaplaincy, works alongside Nelson Winger to think about the future and vision of the University Chaplaincy. They believe Nelson Winger has embraced her new role as university chaplain, and that the community has responded positively. They emphasized the collaborative relationships she has built with members of the Chaplaincy team. 

“This is such an unprecedented time to be starting in the role … and I really appreciate how she’s taken the reins the way she has, and how she … brought her own vision to the work,” Bristol said.

Undeterred by the pandemic, the University Chaplaincy is looking forward to co-sponsoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium today, featuring a keynote address from author, historian and journalist Jelani Cobb. It will also be hosting the annual James A. Russell Lectureship on Spiritual Life in April and planning the Baccalaureate Ceremony. 

Bristol said Nelson Winger’s attitude toward her work is one that seeks to acknowledge the limitations of this moment while also serving the community as best as she can through the Chaplaincy. 

“We are going to continue to be a resource for counseling and care and support, and we’ll continue to be a resource for multifaith engagement on campus, and … a resource for justice on campus,” Bristol said.